How we introduced Mandarin to rural Cambridgeshire

The principal of a secondary school explains how starting Mandarin lessons – with the help of the Department for Education's Mandarin Excellence Programme – has boosted pupils' confidence and given them amazing learning opportunities

Simon Holmes

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Melbourn Village College (MVC) is a 500-strong 11-16 school in a corner of rural south Cambridgeshire. At this small secondary, a revolution in languages teaching began quietly but has now raised the school to national prominence as a trailblazer for Cambridgeshire and the wider Eastern region.

Current Year 7 and 8 at MVC study both Spanish and Mandarin, with a group of 30 Year 7s being part of the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP), funded by the Department for Education and delivered by the UCL Institute of Education and the British Council. Later this year, we will welcome a group of 10 Chinese students, who will spend eight weeks in our classes, and next summer a group of students will take part in a trip to China, again as part of the MEP programme.

This is quite a change from where we were only relatively recently. For many years, we offered French in Year 7, adding German in Year 8. About seven years ago, one of my teachers suggested offering a Spanish GCSE starting from scratch in Year 10. Due to their hard work and high expectations, Spanish almost immediately became not only very successful but also very popular. This led to the decision to start Spanish in key stage 3, beginning in Year 7. In many ways, this process laid the template for the successful introduction of Mandarin.

Why Mandarin? In September 2015, supported by a new chair of governors and the SSAT (The Schools, Students and Teachers Network, formerly the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust), we reviewed all areas of our curriculum and wider provision. In terms of foreign languages, we asked: if we were setting up a school from scratch, which two languages would we offer?

Trying to predict the future is never easy but, being conscious of the increasingly global nature of future trade and having done some research, including documents such as the British Council’s 2013 Languages for the Future, we came up with the answer: Spanish and Mandarin. Incidentally, these two languages are first and second respectively in the updated 2017 version of this report. We then had to make this a reality.

For us, the key aspects involved in introducing Mandarin were: deciding if it was right for our students (and, if so, which ones); engaging stakeholders; and finding a high-quality teacher who was also capable of fronting this new move to students, parents and other stakeholders. Either of these had the potential to bring an end to the project; we were clear that we had to be sure it would work.

To do this, I made use of my contacts and made some very useful new ones. For example, I spent an invaluable day with Dr Rachel Hawkes (director of languages, international education and research at the Cam Academy Trust) observing Mandarin lessons in Harris Academy South Norwood, and also met Katharine Carruthers (UCL Institute of Education) and her PGCE students to discuss the myths around Chinese GCSE. We covered topics such as the growth of Chinese, whether the top grades were accessible to non-native speakers, the supply of resources and teachers, etc.

This research was invaluable in confirming to us that we were on the right track, and with the appointment of Frank Fan as our Mandarin teacher (who, incidentally, was one of the PGCE students we met previously), we were confident we had the right person in place. With an introduction to parents at induction evening and a Year 6 lesson on induction day, we were ready for all Year 7 students to start Mandarin in September 2016.

Fantastic links with other schools

It was an instant hit. We were initially concerned that there might be some reluctance from Year 7 parents and students, but the preparation work we did, the interesting nature of the subject and the high quality of the teaching meant that this wasn’t an issue. In fact, the grumbling that we did get was from older students who were upset that they weren’t having the opportunity to study Mandarin!

We were particularly pleased with our decision to have the whole year group studying Mandarin. As well as being intellectually stimulating for the more able, learning Mandarin gives lower ability students a sense of pride and achievement as they learn something their parents don’t know. This was backed up the following year when a visiting HMI Inspector commented on the huge progress made by our lower ability Year 7s in the subject and the obvious pride they showed in their work. Mandarin also made a number of positive appearances in our latest Ofsted inspection, with students telling the inspectors they "felt privileged to study Mandarin".

At the same time as we began offering Mandarin, the Department for Education had begun its Mandarin Excellence Programme. We had come across this when we were researching Mandarin; indeed, I had attended the initial launch. We kept an eye on developments and were fortunate enough to be able to join the second cohort in September 2017. We now have a class of 30 students who are part of this exciting initiative, studying additional Mandarin inside and outside school time.

Timetabling this has provided some challenges (and will have more as additional year groups come on-stream), but we have found a solution that works for us and the additional funding that it brings in is very welcome. The best part of the MEP is the links with other schools; our Year 7s are aware they are part of something special and this will be reinforced later this year when they link up with another school for a Chinese immersion week.

There are more developments in the pipeline: a Confucius Classroom application and increased links with Chinese schools are imminent. We are also in discussions with our multi-academy trust about post-16 progression and initial teacher training so we can "grow our own".

Mandarin at MVC has been an unqualified success. All the information we have suggests that our students are making excellent progress and we can be confident about their future achievements. Of course, the true test will come when they eventually take their GCSEs but the initial signs are very encouraging. We couldn’t have done this without all the help and support we received from the various contacts we made, and without a full commitment to give this 100 per cent in terms of involvement in additional programmes, such as the Chinese exchange and the MEP. To any school considering introducing Mandarin, either as part of the MEP or as a wider offer, I would say be open-minded and do your research. Has it been worth it for us? Absolutely.

Simon Holmes is principal of Melbourn Village College in Cambridgeshire

The Mandarin Excellence Programme is a Department for Education-funded programme which is being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council. State schools in England can apply to join the programme from September 2018, with funding available to support successful delivery.

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